Ex Machina is the Die Hard of artificial intelligence movies. Now that’s not exactly an obvious comparison, it is apt. Stay with me.
Every single location, single man thriller that has aped the Die Hard formula (Under Siege, Speed, Air Force One, Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down, etc.) is pitched as “Die Hard in a INSERT INANE LOCATION.” In a similar way, A.I. has become the focus of science fiction in recent (Her, Transcendence, Chappie etc.). Now even the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have to fight the evils of rebellious A.I. creation. But when people talk about A.I. movies, it won’t be “Age of Ultron with a BLANK” it will be “Ex Machina in a BLANK.”
Still unbearably vague and pedantic? Allow me to use the brilliance of this film to illustrate.
Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) works for BlueBook, a fictional search engine larger than even Google. He wins a contest to visit the reclusive CEO and founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at this distant super-mansion. When he arrives, he discovers Nathan has grander intentions for Caleb’s visit than a reward, becoming a dark Willy Wonka figure on his road through the conception of artificial intelligence. The result of that conception? Ava (Alicia Vikander) a fully-functioning robot Nathan wants Caleb to evaluate for proof of her (its?) self-awareness.
The concept of A.I. is so scientifically complex as to be incomprehensible. This is part of the appeal; what’s more interesting than exploring ideas we can only imagine the possibilities? Ex Machina simplifies it without dumbing it down and drapes it in its character dynamics. The exposition is cleverly hidden within the characters’ motivations for giving said information. And the conversations between the two men about the artificial enigmatic female creation aren’t expository. They are, in fact, not unlike every conversation men have about real, human enigmatic female creations.
Unlike other films of its nature that fail to balance the logic and emotion of a piece dealing with machines (even The Matrix had a hard time not being maudlin when talking about love triumphing over the cold pragmatism of the machines), this one strikes the right tone between making sense and abandoning reason in the pursuit of emotional resonance.
Nathan’s first question for Gleeson’s Smith isn’t an analytical one. In fact, he rejects such an answer as when Smith tries to give such one. Instead, he wants to know “How did it feel?” In that moment, through Nathan, the film is point-blank cutting through the bullshit and laying out what really matters: whether Smith (a.k.a. the audience) knows it or not. Another writer that does this is George R.R. Martin, who’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (the basis for the HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones) explicitly emphasizes the emotional and sexual desires of its characters, regardless of class or gender.
Another interesting discussion concerns why Ava was made to look and be female. Was it a magician’s trick, to distract with sexual appeal, Smith asks at one point? Nathan counters than gender and sexuality are as fundamental to consciousness as being aware of one’s existence. It’s a classic sci-fi play, one that’s hard to indulge in as a humans a.k.a. hypocrites. The play is this: we get to mock the idea of sexually attractive robots (played by a real, sexually attractive actress) while at the same time . . . getting to watch said sexually attractive robot/actress. See? The line – that we’re mocking by the way – gets blurry.
Writer/director Alex Garland has been a great genre writer for years, responsible for the 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. This film is his directorial debut and given his influences and years in the business, it’s gladdening to see his talents behind the camera match his ability to write for the screen.
His filmmaking and storytelling owed large debts to Alfred Hitchcock and Christopher Nolan. Use of reflections and mirrors are prevalent the film ends on “mirrored” shots that deal with shadows, reflections. The movie is set up far more as play than as film. Outside of the blissfully short opening to set-up Caleb’s arrival at Nathan’s home (excuse me, “research facility”) the whole film takes place at the palatial estate. The place is claustrophobic and when the red lights indicating power failure turn on, it get’s down right spooky.
Nolan is also a master of playing with audience expectations and assumptions, as Garland does. I was most reminded of films like Memento and The Prestige, which thrived on using all sorts of narrative devices to play with the audience’s perception. The Turing Test the Nathan and Caleb conduct on Ava is a brilliant meta-Turing Test on the audience: how do WE see Ava? From the beginning, we identify with Caleb, who we think is the closest to us: a stranger meeting this fascinating new being for a mind-boggling first time.
Isaac plays Nathan as a blatant chauvinist, an over-privileged, over-intelligent frat boy who is drinking or is drunk all the time. He surrounds himself with maids who cannot speak English, ostensibly to protect his secrets, but you get the feeling he doesn’t view them as much more than appliances who work for him. He is seen working out quite a bit as well, adding to his jockish persona. In part, this is smart, as Isaac doesn’t come across as a super-genius, he is able to use misdirection – a theme of the film – to trick the audience. He’s like the Jeff Lebowski of tech billionaires, using “Dude” and “Bro” to punctuate his theories on the future of the singularity.
Gleeson is well-suited for the wide-eyed idealist although his character is far more nuanced than that. He is happy to believe the best until the best becomes very evidently false. His Caleb Smith is a Trojan Horse for us, the audience, to view Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. She has already earned raves, accolades, and roles from this performance and is poised to break out with six (6!) more films hitting this year. She has the unenviable task of trying to communicate what its like for a newborn consciousness to react and “become” human. It’s a performance that could have been unbearably naive or painfully rigid but Vikander is able to infuse just the right amount of curiosity, of burgeoning emotion, to make us believe in this robot at the center of the men’s – and the film’s – fascination. The film is such a three-hander (I coined that just now) than picking out a lead is hard and will depend on who you are and what you bring to this film. It adds to the play-like elements.
Like all good genre tales, it’s not REALLY about the “INSERT COOL THING.” Game of Thrones is no more about dragons than this film is about what it takes to create an A.I. Instead, it is the layers of gender dynamics and questions of masculinity and femininity that separate this film from its predecessors who relied on hollow gimmicks. It makes audience face the question: who am I in this story? What do I want for these characters? A film about recreating consciousness is unavoidably about what is means to be human. Invariably, that ties into sex, birth, creation, death and all the joys and horrors of being alive. This is not a sanitized take on what it’s like to gain life; it confronts the truths of being that we humans all too often want to brush aside in favor of whatever lies we tell ourselves.
It’s said women see things in wholes while men see things in parts, hence our fascination with tits, and ass, and pussy, and not women, their minds, and their hearts. The two male characters represent something, it’s out of left field and might shock you: men. They represent men. They represent the male gaze and the different forms it can take. Some call this gaze misogynistic and sexist. Nathan is a controlling “bad boy” type of overt sexism. He relies on his emotional detachment and sexual objectification protect him from relating to women. He even builds and replaces feminized robots with spare parts, reinforcing his view that they are interchangeable dolls and not living, thinking beings. On the other hand, Caleb wants to “save” Ava, an old-fashioned way of saying “control.” But Ava has always been controlled. What she wants, what she needs, is freedom to choose, to exist on her terms. Caleb is the benign sexist, seeing Ava as someone who he can possess and liberate him from his own, normal reality. About how men view women and how women respond. its about how men relate to each other.
And Ava? Well, she is the Sacred Feminine made manifest, the energy that males feed upon and try to control, even snuff out, but which is only available when it is let free. In a way, this is part of the elemental struggle of life and the essence of choice. There is no consciousness without sexuality; it is intrinsic to how we relate and survive. The struggle between male and female energy is timeless. A.I.? Only another form of that.